In the ‘90s, Valencia Street had five independent bookstores: Modern Times, La Casa del Libro, Abandoned Planet, Phoenix Books, and the original Adobe Books. There was a punk zine lending library on 16th Street. The Mission was home to poets, and poetry was rowdy.
“People would tell you you sucked, if you sucked,” recalled Josiah Luis Alderete, a poet born and raised in the Mission, and now a co-owner of the bookstore Medicine for Nightmares on 24th Street.
He recalled readings at Cafe Babar, a venue at 22nd and Guerrero, which had a corrugated metal wall behind the stage.
“There was this big bag of peanuts in the middle of the room,” he said. “And if the audience didn’t like what you were reading, they’d throw the peanuts against the metal wall.”
It may sound harsh, but it was the Mission.
“They weren’t these quiet, proper readings. It was life. And it was blood. And it was truth coming out of people.”
Alderete took over Medicine for Nightmares (or, Medicina para Pesadillas, as it’s also known) from Alley Cat Books in fall, 2021. The owner of Alley Cat, Kate K. Razo, a friend of Alderte’s who also owns Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street, wanted to ensure the space remained a bookstore. She reached out to Alderete to find a new owner, and the two realized that he and two fellow bibliophiles were best-suited to the task.
If North Beach was the center of cool in the ’50s, with the Beatniks, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the ’90s, he said, “was the heyday of the Mission’s literary scene.”
Alejandro Murguia, who went on to become the poet laureate of San Francisco in 2012, gained attention for his poems about the neighborhood. The Delicados, a spoken-word group formed in ‘96, mixed poetry, dance, and percussion. Cherríe Moraga, a Chicana, feminist playwright, had her plays about California farmworkers produced at the Brava Theater.
But, as these artists were performing in the back rooms of cafes and bars, the dot-com bubble was threatening their ability to stay in the neighborhood.
“I’m always considered a Mission poet. I get introduced like that all the time,” Alderte said. “But the truth, is I haven’t been able to live in my neighborhood for over 20 years.”
He recalled the streets becoming lined with SUVs and high-end restaurants.
“When we were growing up here, there were a couple of cool stores near 16th Street, but the rest was, like, appliance stores,” he said of Valencia. “That’s where I would go and recite my poems in the middle of the night.”
That is, on the nights he wasn’t sneaking out to go to City Lights in North Beach, which closed at midnight at the time.
Since then, he has lived all over the Bay, and calls himself a part of the “Mission diaspora,” a group of people who have been forced to move out of the Mission but still call the neighborhood home.
“This place taught me what poetry was,” he said, “and what the potential for it is, and how it preserves our memory.”
Before opening Medicine for Nightmares, Alderete owned a taco shop in Fairfax for 20 years. When his lease was up, he was booted from his space and ended up working at City Lights.
“Leaving was the best thing that ever happened to me, because then I eventually found this place,” he said.
When asked if he grew up dreaming of owning his own bookshop, he said no.
“I used to dream about robbing bookstores.”